It's Not The Money or Property They Fight Over

It’s Not The Money or Property They Fight Over

I was very close to my great grandmother, whom I called “Bubby.” A framed picture in my home includes her image along with an 1890 silver dollar. She told me that her father handed her a silver dollar bearing the year of her birth when she arrived in America. She hadn’t seen him in many years, as he had to save for her passage. Until my Bubby’s death in 1976, we celebrated our birthdays together, as ours were only one day apart on the calendar.

When she died, that silver dollar was invaluable to me. I was only 12 years old, but I dearly wanted it to remember her by. My sister, incidentally, has our Bubby’s soup spoon framed in a box. It hangs proudly in my sister’s dining room.

So you might find it interesting that in my twenty seven years of practicing estate planning law, I rarely encounter siblings who fight over a deceased parent’s money or property. Generally speaking, the very few disputes I’ve refereed between siblings involved tangible personal property items like rings, watches, jewelry and other items just like coins and soup spoons.

Don’t underestimate the sentimental value of an item that’s been handed down over the generations from father to son or from mother to daughter. If you have more than one son, you may not want to assume that the eldest will treasure granddad’s watch. Mothers of daughters and even granddaughters often own a certain string of pearls, a diamond broche or a bracelet that has sentimental value to one or more family members.

So if you own such items that you would like to see passed down to a certain child or grandchild, the first course of business is to find out whether he or she wants it. It doesn’t have to be the main topic of conversation during a visit or phone call, but at some opportune moment it makes sense to confirm the intended recipient is willing.

Don’t take “let’s not talk about this now” as an answer, either. Many adult children don’t want to sound as if they are awaiting your imminent demise. An appropriate response might be, “I intend to hold onto my [insert item name here] for quite some time. I just want to make sure that if I leave it to you that this is something you would treasure as I have. Or perhaps there’s something else that you find more valuable sentimentally.”

Be careful here. I’ve had some occasions where more than one child proclaims that he was “promised” an item by their father or mother. If you don’t intend to promise that certain item, but are merely talking about it, make that clear.

Once you’ve decided who is to receive these tangible personal property items, then it is time to make a list. Florida law actually gives us an easy mechanism to make a list of our tangible personal property outside of our will or trust, and to easily amend it without having to visit your attorney.

So long as our will or trust mentions the list properly under the Florida statute, (this would be the job of you working with your estate planning attorney) then you may create a list and it need only be signed and dated. The list does not have to be witnessed. If you should choose to update the list, sign and date it again. I suggest providing a copy of the current list to your estate planning attorney so that he may retain a current copy in your file.

One other note of caution – if you give an item away during your lifetime, remove the item from your list. Also, if you intend for the value of the gift to be deducted from the total value of what that beneficiary receives from your estate or trust, then you should mention this to your attorney to ensure he includes appropriate language within your will or trust documents.

What happens if you don’t have such a list? Then it is typically up to your personal representative and/or trustee to decide who is to receive which tangible personal property items, or which ones should be sold or auctioned. This is where the disputes may arise. The child with the unfortunate task of deciding the fate of sentimental items might find themselves in the unfortunate position of wanting something, but it might look like self dealing if they take it when another beneficiary also expresses a desire to acquire that same item.

Creating such a list can mean more than leaving thousands of dollars to your loved ones. Although my Bubby didn’t have much in the form of monetary wealth when she died, she left me a real treasure, one that can never be replaced.

The Sheppard Law Firm has its main in Fort Myers and also in Naples by appointment.

© 2017 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

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